We were all wrong about "Aliens: Colonial Marines."
When Gearbox Software announced it was working on a first-person shooter that would be a spiritual sequel to "Aliens," there was a justifiable buzz. Fans assumed the studio that developed the remarkable "Borderlands" would be bringing that same vision and creativity to the franchise. Unfortunately, the team must have been wearing blinders.
Gearbox and its collaborating teams zeroed in on a campaign that melds into the fiction of the "Aliens" universe, but it fails to turn that into a compelling game. It's immediately evident in the opening scene, when players take control of Cpl. Christopher Winter as he's crossing over to the USS Sulaco. He and a contingent of space Marines arrive at the ship orbiting the planet LV-426 after receiving a distress call from Cpl. Dwayne Hicks, the male lead in "Aliens."
Stepping onto the ship, players discover visuals that look dated and fall short of evoking the atmosphere of the films. Somewhere along the line, "Aliens: Colonial Marines" took a wrong turn in the art department, and Gearbox and company brought back the repetitive art and corridor shooting of 2002.
Instead of being immersed in a terrifying space where no one can hear them scream, players are thrown into a frenetic shooting gallery where they have to mow down xenomorphs or get into gunfights with Weyland-Yutani mercenaries. The game does have two frightening moments and an interesting chapter where players trudge through the sewers, but other than that, there's not much beyond going from point A to point B with the help of a pulse rifle or legendary weapons scattered throughout the campaign.
At least Winter has help from his main sidekick, Peter O'Neal, and an occasional ally. The AI doesn't do anything special besides adding extra firepower or guiding players through levels. They don't require any baby-sitting and visibly respawn nearby if they get stuck in a room.
But that's just another flaw that removes players from the fiction as they discover why the Sulaco was moved from its previous location near the planet Fiorina 161 and the Weyland-Yutani's motives behind it. That blemish is indicative of the whole pedestrian experience, which doesn't feel particularly polished or thought out.
It hits notes that fans of the series want, such as controlling a Power Loader and using the motion tracker to find friends, foes and objectives. It slavishly devotes itself to re-creating environments from the movies, and it does so with good detail. (You'll get flashbacks from the movies.) The developers behind "Aliens: Colonial Marines" can make a virtual replica of Hadley's Hope, but if it isn't alive with atmosphere and tension, it's just a nice-looking shell, a prop in a store window.
And that's what the game is missing: a sense of danger. Players need to feel that necessity for survival. Gearbox tries to offer that with secondary characters in danger, but players never get attached to them. Gearbox should have gone back to the source material and realized that the franchise isn't about twitchy running and gunning. Instead, it lends itself to a slower-paced survival-horror game. It's a huge mistake.
Perhaps Gearbox isn't suited for this type of game. It's like asking Michael Phelps to run track or Lindsay Lohan to sing opera. The studio's strength lies in its wit, character progression and mission design. But none of those elements shines through in "Aliens: Colonial Marines," a game that held some promise but disappoints spectacularly in the end.
Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3